Members of the Civic Guard with Inspector John Keaney, outside Mullingar Courthouse in February 1923.

Mullingar District Court 100 years old this week

District court business in Mullingar – which continues as normal this very morning (Thursday) – first came into operation 100 years ago this week.

The Westmeath Examiner of November 11, 1922 reported that on the previous Tuesday, November 7, Mullingar District Court was formally opened at the courthouse on Mount Street, replacing the old petty sessions and county court structures which operated under the British administration.

The first presiding judge was William George (Liam) Price, BL, assisted by Kenneth Reddin, BL, with former Sinn Féin activist Nicholas Crosbie the first clerk of the court. Members of the Civic Guard, stationed at the courthouse since September 29 in the absence of other accommodation, were also in attendance.

“The meeting was practically merely a formal opening of the Courts, as there was very little business and nothing of any importance. The session was very brief,” the Examiner reported.

The real business began the following Friday, November 10, when Judge Price presided over a licensing court.

Price, who was then 31 years old, grew up on Dublin’s Leeson Street, the son of George – a respected King’s Counsel and registrar of Chancery Division at the Four Courts – and Kate Price. The Prices were a Church of Ireland family.

Liam Price (1891-1967), seen in later years, was the first presiding judge at Mullingar District Court.

Price studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a Senior Moderator and Vice-Chancellor’s Prizeman. He was called to the Irish bar in 1919. A keen student of Irish and a member of the Leinster College of Irish, he went by his Gaelic name, Liam, and during the War of Independence period rejected the British legal system and practiced in the Irish republican courts.

In 1925, Price married Dorothy Stopford, a niece of the nationalist, historian and Free State senator, Alice Stopford Green. He went on to a long career as a judge, finishing in Wicklow. A historian of note, he was a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Folklore Commission, and a president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

‘Promise of security and happiness’

Friday November 10, 1922, was the first busy day of district court business in Mullingar, with a number of local solicitors taking their seats, including J J Macken, J E Wallace and Joseph Downes, all major names in Mullingar legal history. The Civic Guard was represented by Superintendent A L O’Neill.

J J Macken, speaking in the context of an ongoing civil war, said that “an important point had been reached in bringing peace and prosperity to the country” with the roll-out of the district courts, which “gave promise of security and happiness to the people”.

J E Wallace, who later in 1923 became state solicitor for Westmeath, echoed these remarks and assured the court “the loyal co-operation and assistance... of the members of the legal profession in Mullingar”.

Mullingar solicitor John Wallace was present for the first sitting of Mullingar District Court 100 years ago.

Judge Price replied by saying: “We are here to carry on that work of providing elementary legal redress for the people, and we shall carry it on as efficiently and impartially as we are able”. He paid tribute to the clerk of the court, Nicholas Crosbie, and welcomed the Civic Guard. “Even to see them patrolling the streets is a matter which has brought the greatest relief to the people,” he said.

Mr Kenneth Reddin, BL, assisting Judge Price on the bench remarked that the district court “has been set up by the people and is for the people. This Court belongs to Mullingar and Mullingar is paying for it. These Courts are set up by the will of the people and by the Government of the people.”

Unfortunately, Mr Reddin added, the ongoing chaotic state of the country meant that “there was a prevalence of certain crimes – one’s property and person were not altogether safe, and until now the people had felt the terrible want of a Court of Justice”.

“That want was now supplied, and let every man, irrespective of religion or politics, if he comes in here, be assured his rights will be vindicated,” he added.

The establishment of the district court system in Mullingar applied not just to the town, but also outlying districts, namely Ballynacargy, Multyfarnham (incorporating Rathowen), Castlepollard (incorporating Collinstown), Delvin (incorporating Clonmellon), Killucan and Tyrrellspass. The Mullingar court incorporated cases from Rochfortbridge.

An advertisement detailing district court sessions in District No. 10, published in the Westmeath Examiner, Nov. 25, 1922.

In a late November 1922 edition of the Westmeath Examiner, an advertisement described how the individual courts were going to operate.

In the early courts system, Mullingar was part of District No. 10, which comprised parts of Westmeath, Meath, Offaly and Kildare. These included the above named Westmeath courts as well as those in Athboy, Ballivor, Longwood, Summerhill, Trim, Oldcastle, Crossakiel, Edenderry, Fahy and Rathangan.

Courts sat at the following times: Ballynacargy at 11am on the fourth Thursday of each month; Castlepollard at 12 noon on the second Wednesday; Delvin at 1pm on the third Friday; Killucan at 11am on the first Tuesday; Mullingar at 11am on the first, second and fourth Saturdays; Multyfarnham at 1pm on the first Thursday, and Tyrrellspass on the third Tuesday.